Paul Andersen: A message in a bottle goes intergalactic
The technological achievement of Voyagers I and II — twin expertly engineered space craft that have so far traveled over 12 billion miles — is certainly worthy. But should there be more?
While I ponder their mission, these craft are still flinging spaceward, having outdistanced the gravitational pull of our sun and, for the first time, pushing human presence beyond our solar system. In this, the Voyager mission represents the greatest exploratory venture humans have ever initiated.
When the crafts’ electronic tendrils of contact disappear, what will this great accomplishment have achieved? The only link they will then have with Earth will be the gold-plated records aboard each Voyager, a cryptic payload intended to land in the mythic realm of extraterrestrials.
These records, shaped in the form of antiquated LPs from 1977 when the Voyagers were launched, contain hints, clues and relics of human culture. For example, there is a recording of Chuck Berry playing “Johnny B. Goode.” Imagine space aliens doing the funky chicken to Berry’s twanging guitar.
“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings,” memorialized Jimmy Carter, who was president when the space probes were launched. “We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
Carter’s final statement indicates a portentous foreboding view about our long-term survival in 1977. With it comes a note of hope for the opportunity to celebrate a future when extraterrestrial contact may become a reality that will have profound, hopefully positive, impacts on human existence.
To think that man’s only calling card is held in these two diminutive space ships is not exactly consoling given the vastness of space. The probes bearing these records (and a stylus with which to play them) are like drops in the sea when compared to the infinite space in which man has barely scratched the surface.
The records are encoded with 115 images, with the remainder as audio, designed to be played at 16 revolutions per minute. Will extraterrestrials have the proper turntable? Will they hear it in stereo through Bose speakers? Will they even have ears or eyes?
The Voyager records were designed to inspire interstellar contact and intergalactic understanding. They were the brainchild of space pioneer Carl Sagan, who had to appeal to the highest authority at NASA to get them included as dubious cargo.
Included is a variety of natural sounds — surf, wind, thunder and the songs of birds and whales — and varied musical selections from around our tiny speck of a dust mote planet. There are spoken greetings in 55 languages and other human sounds, like footsteps. There is laughter, provided by Carl Sagan himself.
A controversial addition was the Pioneer Plaque with line drawings of a naked man and woman. This was almost too much for prurient scientists to bear. They vetoed actual naked photographs, fearing that humanity would be censored by space beings offended by the “full monty” of human physicality.
Imagine if you were charged with creating such a calling card as a record of humanity. How would you choose and on what parameters? And where would you draw the line on decency and PC appropriateness?
The Voyager records apply anthropocentric qualities to beings in whom we may have absolutely nothing in common. It’s not like laying a cornerstone at the courthouse to be dug up by our successors. The Voyagers’ cosmic cornerstones may become the most mystifying thing in the universe, a graffiti tag painted on the far fringe of the most distant places we have never even imagined.
Chuck Berry as global emissary. Now that’s something to ponder. You may ponder it all yourself in the documentary: “The Farthest — Voyager in Space” — 12 billion miles and counting.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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